Many times in your career or your personal life you’ll face difficult decisions. When you face a decision where the consequences of making the wrong decision are serious. You feel sick in your stomach as you think about even making the decision.
So how do you make the decision?
The first thing to acknowledge that it’s often less about the decision itself, it’s more about the consequences of the decision. Deciding what to wear is a trivial decision, but it might not feel so trivial if you’re going to give a speech to 1000 people. Then you might really care about what your clothes.
When I face difficult decisions, I find it helpful to be able to understand what kind of decision it is. Putting the decision into a box helps you better understand how to handle making a decision.
I see difficult decisions falling into three basic categories.
Hard to call
These are decisions you’re genuinely not sure what the right decision is. You’ve done the analysis, written lists of pros and cons, asked for advice, run scenarios over the different outcomes, and … it’s still a 50-50 decision.
So what do you do?
This is actually really simple: you flip a coin.
If you genuinely cannot choose between two options, then it isn’t worth the time to agonise over it. Choose at random and move on. Put your energy into your chosen path rather than agonising over the decision.
If you find out later you made the wrong decision based on new information, rest easy. You can only make decisions based on the information you have at the time.
Not enough time
This is a decision with a time limit. If you don’t make a decision soon, you’ll miss an opportunity or suffer some consequences.
You don’t have the time to gather enough information to feel comfortable you’re going to make the right decision. What do you do? You simply don’t have enough information to be sure you’re going to make the right decision.
You need to recognise also that not making a decision is still a decision, it’s just a decision to do nothing. You will always be forced to make a decision, even if that decision is to delay making a decision. You need to seriously consider whether deciding to delay is better than actually making the decision.
Not making a decision is almost always worse than making a decision. Often your initial reaction is the best one, so make the decision and move on.
Decisions With Consequences
These are the decisions where you know what the right choice is, you just don’t want to do it.
This is the kind of decision where you find out that someone senior at work bullying a junior staff member, and it’s not the first time it’s happened. You know that you should speak up, you know it’s the right thing to do. Maybe you just aren’t sure if it will make any difference. You might be seen as someone who isn’t a team player. Maybe you’ve seen what happens to people who speak up.
It could be something more personal, something closer to home. You discover a well liked family member is abusing their spouse. If you speak up, that would make you very unpopular and create a real divide in the family. Maybe it would be simpler to pretend you hadn’t seen anything? Or that you might have been confused.
It’s the kind of situation that can make you feel sick in the pit of your stomach. You know what you should do, but you fear the consequences.
When you’re faced with a decision like this, the only real choice is to do what you know is right. You need to live with the consequences of your decision.
However, you can be wise how you do this. You can collect evidence, ask others for advice and prepare how you want to approach it. Maybe you can find some allies. You can choose how and when to address the issue. Take the time to manage the impact of your decision.
When making decisions, I find it gives me comfort to be able to understand what sort of decision you’re facing. If in doubt, aim for making a faster decision over a slower decision. For 2 out of the 3 types of decisions a faster decision is the best option.